Years from now, well into the next century, wide receiver Michael Westbrook will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Oh, yes, he will. At his pre-induction dinner there will be a taped tribute from Jerry Rice, slightly gray and a little stooped, saying, "I hate to admit this, man, but you played the game the way I wanted to." During coffee, Westbrook himself will limp to the podium and thank his mom, God, his teammates. He'll say, "Coach, I told you good things would happen if you just ordered 'em to throw me the ball 20 times a game." Several hundred celebrants, cheesecake in their mouths, will laugh. Nobody will remember the two episodes from 1997. Nobody will remember that once people were asking, "When will Michael Westbrook grow up?"
In the meantime....
Episode No. 1. Aug. 19, 1997. Preseason practice at Redskin Park in Ashburn, Va. Several players are standing on the sideline, needling one another. Stephen Davis, a second-year running back, tells Westbrook he isn't worth the money he's making. ( Westbrook, the fourth pick in the 1995 draft, held out for 26 days that summer before signing a seven-year, $18 million contract with Washington.) Davis chides Westbrook for not playing hurt. (In his first two seasons Westbrook missed 10 games with injuries.) "You're a f——— fag," Davis says. Westbrook snaps. He throws Davis to the ground and punches him in the head at least five times. A television cameraman catches every blow on tape.
Episode No. 2. Nov. 23, 1997. The Redskins are playing the New York Giants at Jack Kent Cooke Stadium. The Giants are in first place in the NFC East. Washington is one game back. The score is 7-7 with 48 seconds left in overtime, and the Skins are facing second-and-10 at the New York 38. Jeff Hostetler drops back and passes to Westbrook, who is having the game of his career, nine receptions for 125 yards. Westbrook makes a diving catch near the 25 but is ruled out-of-bounds. While arguing the decision, Westbrook yanks off his helmet, which results in an automatic 15-yard unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty. Two plays later, with 11 seconds to go, the Redskins attempt a 54-yard field goal, which falls short. The game ends in a tie.
Now would be a good time to pose to Westbrook the very question Jay Leno asked Hugh Grant after the latter's rendezvous with Divine Brown: "What were you thinking?" But you can't. Michael Westbrook stopped granting interviews after Episode No. 1.
"Michael has more natural, God-given talent than anybody I've ever been around, except Bo Jackson," says Terry Robiskie, the Redskins' wide receivers coach. "In time he'll be one of the dominant players in the NFL. But right now, is he focused on all the things in football that he should be? No, he is not."
Westbrook's friends rise to his defense. They concede that he was impulsive and wrong to yank off his helmet in the heat of battle but that he was responding from the heart. Their biggest fear is that Westbrook will never escape the shadow of his recent transgressions.
"People who know him will go to the mat for him," says Darian Hagan, who played with Westbrook at Colorado. "Mike's major problem is one of perception. He has been in two unfortunate situations. I watched the helmet-throwing incident, and my heart just dropped. I knew what the media would make of it. I had seen him as sort of turning the corner after the fight with Davis. Then this happens. In three seconds of life, a situation occurs, and nothing he's done before makes a difference."
Westbrook's friends and family have seen him bounce back from mistakes before. During Westbrook's freshman year at Colorado, 1991, Buffaloes coach Bill McCartney told his staff he was kicking Westbrook off the team because he was doing poorly in the classroom and showing up late for practices and team meetings. However, Les Steckel, then a Colorado assistant coach and now the offensive coordinator of the Tennessee Oilers, persuaded McCartney to give Westbrook one more chance. Steckel made Westbrook his special project and, using a combination of headlocks and gentle prodding, connected with him in a way no other coach, and probably no other adult male, ever had. He turned Westbrook around. "Attention, affirmation and affection," says Steckel. "This kid was starving for it."
Westbrook went on to catch the now famous Hail Mary pass that beat Michigan in 1994, and his size (6'3" and 220 pounds) and athleticism (in high school he high-jumped 6'7" and long-jumped 23'0") wowed NFL scouts. After the Redskins drafted Westbrook, Steckel told them they were getting a great player, but he added, "He's an emotional guy, and you have to somehow comfort him. You have to stroke him, you have to put your arm around him, you have to constantly let him express himself to you."